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U.S. Congressman: Washington 'Should Not Countenance' Russian Pressure On Neighbors

U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel (Democrat-New York)
WASHINGTON -- A senior U.S. lawmaker says Washington "should not countenance" an apparent increase in Russian pressure on its neighbors as they seek closer ties with the European Union.

In an interview with RFE/RL, New York's Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "Russia is starting to throw its weight around and I just think that we should let the Russians know that we are aware of this, that we don't like it, and that we're going to try to provide support and comfort to these countries to do whatever they want to do voluntarily -- not to be threatened with [a] cut-off of oil or gas or boycotts of their products."

"This bullying is unacceptable," he said.

Russia has allegedly stepped up political and economic pressure on Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine ahead of the EU's Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November. Moscow's apparent goal is to push the countries toward joining a Russian-led customs union alongside Belarus and Kazakhstan instead of moving closer to Brussels.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said Eastern European countries were "facing constant pressures and threats" from Moscow.

Russian presidential adviser Sergei Glazyev warned Ukraine on September 21 against signing agreements with Brussels, saying that Moscow would retaliate with trade restrictions that could push the country toward default. Over the summer, Moscow banned the products of a major Ukrainian chocolate company.

Moldovan wine, one of the tiny country's key exports, was banned in Russia earlier this month. Moscow has also threatened to shut off its supply of gas to Chisinau this winter.

In Vilnius, Georgia and Moldova may initial Association Agreements as well as accompanying Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) pacts with the EU. Ukraine has already initialed its agreements and could sign them at the Lithuanian summit.

EU officials say DFCTA agreements are incompatible with the rules of Russia's customs union.

Engel sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on September 18 calling on him to "speak out strongly" on the issue. He said that he had not yet received a response, but expected to.

"The moral force of the United States is very big all over the world and these countries feel abandoned. At least that's the way it has been described to me. We should not allow them to be browbeaten by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Russia," he said.

"We need to make it clear, and that's why I wrote the letter to Secretary Kerry, that we won't countenance this kind of behavior."

"If I were a country in Eastern Europe, I would be worried as well," he added.

The congressman met last week with visiting Moldovan Foreign Minister Natalia Gherman, who told RFE/RL that she was seeking not only words, but greater economic assistance from both the EU and the United States in the face of Russian pressure.

Engel said he also appealed to Kerry in part over concern that Moscow's pressure on its neighbors could be overlooked as larger objectives are pursued.

"It's very important for us to stand for principles and not throw them away because we are cutting a deal with Russia on Syria, for instance, or we need Russian help in trying to curb Iran," he said.

Engel also expressed concern that amid efforts to tackle more pressing issues, Russia's occupation of the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia had "fallen away" in Washington.

"It's fallen away to our shame, quite frankly. I think we're almost looking the other way and I don't think we should be," he said.

Russia and a handful of other states recognize the territories as independent.